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The WWII battle you probably haven’t heard of

In November 1942 following the battle of El Alamein, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told an audience at London’s Mansion House:

“Now this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Although viewing the situation in purely Anglo-centric terms, Churchill was inadvertently correct.  El Alamein was a tiny victory compared to events unfolding elsewhere in the world.  It was, however, the first and only irreversible British (empire) victory in the Second World War.  It was just one of four battles that were won in November 1942 that marked “the end of the beginning” insofar as they inflicted defeats upon the axis powers from which they could never fully recover.  On the western side of North Africa, the Anglo-American Torch landings brought US and German troops face-to-face for the first time in the war; serving notice on Germany that the full industrial might of the USA would be turned against them in the coming months.  At the same moment on the other side of the planet, US combined forces finally defeated the Japanese on the Island of Guadalcanal – marking the high tide of Japanese advance; after which they would reel from one defeat after another.

The biggest battle of all, however, was the one unfolding on the banks of the Volga River and the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia.  On 19 November 1942, two Soviet army groups unleashed an assault that surrounded the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad and which pushed the Germans back across the River Don – threatening to cut off the entire German army group in Southern Russia.  Although largely remembered for the surrender of more than 90,000 troops of the German Sixth Army, the Stalingrad battle had been merely the opening phase of a winter offensive that recaptured the eastern Ukraine, opened a supply corridor into besieged Leningrad and drove the Germans back from the Moscow area toward Orel and Kursk.

Where November 1942 marked the “end of the beginning,” June 1944 undoubtedly marked the beginning of the end.  In 1943 and early 1944 both the Soviet Union and the USA had only the potential to become military superpowers.  Although US military production was rising rapidly, it was still in the process of equipping and training the forces that it would unleash against the Axis powers in 1944 and 1945.  After Guadalcanal, for example, the US Pacific Fleet was left with just one aircraft carrier – the USS Enterprise – which was damaged to the point that it could only launch aircraft but not land them again.  It would take the US shipyards another year before its new fast carrier task forces – including the re-fitted Enterprise – would be ready to take the war to the Japanese Imperial Navy.

That confrontation was to come on 20-22 June 1944, when the US Navy moved to assault the Japanese forces in the Marianas Islands in order to land on Saipan, Tinnian (from where the atomic bombing missions would take off a year later) and Guam.  Having spent 1943 retreating ahead of the US Navy while it sought to replace the losses suffered at Midway and Guadalcanal, the Imperial Japanese Navy chose the Marianas as the place to make its stand.  As the US Pacific Fleet moved in to support the landings, Japanese carrier forces launched waves of naval bombers at long range; with the intention that they would refuel on Japanese airfields on the islands before returning to the carriers.

The US carrier pilots in June 1944 were seasoned veterans; very different to the greenhorns who had faced the Japanese at Pearl Harbour, the Coral Sea and Midway.  The reverse was true for the Japanese.  By 1944 their best pilots lay at the bottom of the Pacific.  The pilots sent to interdict the US landings in the Marianas were ill-trained novices with little if any combat experience.  The result was the Battle of the Philippine Sea – or, colloquially among US forces, the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” – which resulted in more than 600 Japanese aircraft being shot down without sinking a single American ship.  Nor were US carrier forces the only ones to make an impact in the battle.  Having finally developed torpedoes that were fit for purpose, an expanded US submarine force was ready to go on the offensive by June 1944.  And during the Battle of the Philippine Sea the Albacore scored a fatal hit on the Japanese flagship, the carrier Taihō.  Later in the battle, the Cavalla sank the carrier Shōkaku – the fifth of the six carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbour to be sent to the bottom of the Pacific.

Although not regarded as a victory at the time, the US Navy had effectively neutralised Japan’s carrier fleet in June 1944.  The last survivor of Pearl Harbour – the Zuikaku – herself damaged during the Battle of the Philippine Sea – was to meet her end acting as a decoy during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944.  The remaining Japanese battleships and cruisers retreated to Sumatra – where naturally occurring light crude oil was available as an unrefined fuel.  The Japanese Home Islands, however, could only be defended by land-based units after June 1944.

In the west, June 1944 is remembered for the invasion of Northwest Europe.  Seventy-five years on, there is a tendency – for reasons of national pride – for the British and Americans to overstate the impact of the invasion on the defeat of Germany.  Equally, there is a tendency for Russians to understate the value of the landings.  Making an opposed seaborne landing of more than 150,000 troops against a land-based army was a triumph of planning and logistics.  And while many of the German troops defending the Normandy beaches were under-strength, poorly trained and ill-equipped; the same cannot be said of the SS Panzer divisions that were removed from the Eastern Front and deployed to contain the invasion beachhead.

Arguably, June 1944 was the one time that the Soviet Union and the Western Allies came close to coordinating their actions.  Having pleaded for two years for the Western Allies to open a second front to relieve pressure on the Red Army, Stalin agreed to launch a major offensive in the East to coincide with the Anglo-American invasion of Northwest Europe (although ever the grand strategist, he waited to make sure the Western Allies could secure their bridgehead before proceeding).

Operation Bagration – named after one of Russia’s Napoleonic War generals – was an order of magnitude bigger than the invasion of Normandy.  Where the Western Allies sought to bring 150,000 men against a single German army along a 50 mile front; the Red Army planned to unleash 2,400,000 men against two German army groups (North and Centre) along a 400 mile front.

Just as the Western Allies had operated a detailed deception plan, so the Soviet “maskirovka” efforts persuaded German intelligence that the Red Army would attack from southern Ukraine toward the Rumanian oil fields; while the bulk of their forces were actually facing Belorussia and the Baltic states.  Unlike the Anglo-American deception, this Soviet effort had to be made despite the Red Army being in contact with the Germans along the whole length of the front.  In this respect, the Soviet intelligence operations in May and June 1944 were at least the equal of those of the Western Allies in the lead up to D-Day.

The success of the Soviet deception resulted in a major imbalance of forces in Belorussia at the start of the operation.  Total German forces in the area amounted to around 1,000,000 men in four armies.  However, these were mostly deployed in understrength divisions that were lacking in supplies and equipment.  On the eve of the attack, the German Third Panzer Army fielded just 118 tanks.  The Luftwaffe – a shadow of the force that had nearly defeated the RAF in 1940 – deployed just 40 fighter planes in the Belorussian region.  Against these, the four Soviet “Fronts” (Army Groups) deployed 5,200 tanks and self-propelled guns and 5,300 planes.  The disparity in artillery was even greater; the German forces fielded 3,700 artillery weapons against the Red Army’s 32,700.  In the weeks leading up to the offensive, more than 600 trains – unnoticed by German intelligence – delivered 500,000 tons of food, 400,000 tons of ammunition and 300,000 tons of fuel to the front.  In the two nights prior to the assault – again, unobserved by the Germans – Soviet bomb disposal units cleared 34,000 mines from the planned assault lanes.

During the night of 21-22 June 1944, Red Army units began small-scale probing attacks designed to expose German strong points and to find weak spots in the German defences.  These attacks gradually intensified until, on 23 June, Red Army artillery delivered one of the largest barrages of the Second World War; devastating the German front line positions and allowing Red Army infantry units to hold breaches through which the Soviet tank and mechanised units could plough deep behind the German lines.  To the north, Soviet units surrounded the cities of Vitebsk and Orsha; trapping and ultimately destroying some 30,000 defenders.  In the south, a Red Army drive toward Bobruisk on 23 June ran into the German XXXXI Panzer Corp – one of the few armoured formations in the region; albeit a seriously understrength one.  Despite heavy fighting, by June 27 the Red Army had surrounded the city, trapping some 70,000 German troops.

With these initial targets secured, the road to the Belorussian capital Minsk was open.  Beginning on 28 June, Soviet armoured formations in the Vitebsk area began driving along the main Minsk-Smolensk highway, while forces around Bobruisk and Mogilev fought their way northwest toward the south and west of the city.  The trap closed on 2 July as Soviet armoured units encircled the city, trapping around 100,000 German defenders.  With the capture of Minsk on 4 July, the initial phase of the offensive was at an end.  Some 300,000 German forces had been killed or captured in the course of just eleven days.

At this point the offensive broadened.  Forces in the north crossed the River Dvina and began driving into Estonia.  Meanwhile, forces around Minsk pushed north, briefly reaching the Baltic Sea west of Riga; potentially trapping the entire German Army Group North.  It wasn’t to be.  German forces were able to open a corridor around the Estonian town of Tukums; allowing a retreat into the Courland Peninsula – where they remained (in what came to be described as an “armed prison camp”) until 11 May 1945. Further retreat toward Germany was made impossible by this time because the Soviet offensive had opened its second phase, which included a drive into Lithuania and the capture of its capital, Vilnius.  The city was surrounded on 8 July, trapping some 15,000 defenders; 3,000 of which escaped before the city finally fell on 13 July.  By this time a general offensive north and west of the Pripyat Marshes opened up, with Red Army formations driving into Poland, closing on the River Vistula and reaching the Eastern outskirts of Warsaw on 29 August.

The Red Army units that pulled up on the east bank of the Vistula had fought their way across more than 540 miles of German occupied Belorussia, the Baltic Republics and eastern Poland.  For comparison, the distance between Caen in Normandy – where Montgomery’s forces landed on 6 June 1944 – and Luneburg Heath in Northwest Germany – where Montgomery received the surrender of German forces in his sector on 4 May 1945 – is a little over 580 miles.  In just 67 days the Red Army had covered almost the same distance that the British army covered in 11 months.  In the process, they killed or captured more than 450,000 German troops; some 60,000 of which were paraded through Moscow in front of a world media that had refused to believe the scale of the German defeat.

The Bagration offensive has rightly been referred to as Hitler’s greatest defeat.  The sheer scale of the offensive serves to put the Anglo-American invasion of Northwest Europe in its proper context.  Nevertheless, it is disingenuous for contemporary Russian politicians to belittle the Anglo-American effort; which served to draw seasoned armoured units away from the Eastern Front and – perhaps more importantly – effectively destroyed the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm.  By the summer of 1944, thanks in large part to the Anglo-American air forces, the Red Army enjoyed air superiority across Belorussia and the Baltic States.  Had they not done so, German armoured formations and artillery units would have been a lot more effective and the Soviet advance a lot harder and slower.  Nevertheless, while the Western Allies were engaging in battles that involved tens of thousands of men; the Red Army was dealing in millions.

Lost to most histories is the key reason why the Red Army was able to conduct an offensive on this scale.  When the Germans invaded in June 1941, much of the Red Army equipment that they destroyed in the frontier battles was of antiquated inter-war design; including canvas covered bi-planes and the lightly armoured and under-gunned T26 tank.  However, and to the shock of the German commanders, by the autumn of 1941 Russian factories were already turning out the famous T34 tank – which was more than a match for the early German tanks – together with a new generation of modern aeroplanes, which also proved the equal of their German counterparts.

In 1941, the Soviet Union was an oil state without (modern) oil-powered equipment.  In contrast, the German army was rich in tanks and planes but severely lacking in oil to power them.  It is for this reason that the Stalingrad battle in 1942 was to prove crucial to the outcome of the war.  Had the Germans captured and restored the oil fields at Maikop and Grozny, while simultaneously severing the Soviet oil transport from Baku along the Volga to the industrial heartland, the German Panzers would have had sufficient fuel to defeat the Soviet Union.  Their failure to meet either objective left their own forces starved of fuel even as soviet factories were beginning to out-produce them in tanks and planes.

A taste of what was to come was seen on 12 July 1943 during the battles around Kursk.  German armoured units – which had waited months to build up their supplies before attacking – were finally halted around the village of Prokhorovka by a reserve Soviet (Fifth Guards) Tank army that arrived on the battlefield under its own steam after a drive of 230 miles, but which still had sufficient fuel to halt the German advance in a close quarters clash of some 900 tanks.   Once halted, the German forces lacked the fuel to redeploy; whereas the Red Army units were able to launch their counter-offensive within days.

By the summer of 1944 – with the western allies bombing oil industry targets – the German armoured divisions had to be moved by train.  On the Eastern Front, this often meant being transported across territory held by partisan units which regularly sabotaged transport infrastructure.  Whereas Red Army units had the resources to engage in a “deep battle” in which whole armies could be surrounded and destroyed by armoured and motorised forces operating hundreds of miles beyond their starting positions; German armour – having been deployed in the south to protect the Rumanian oil fields – could not be redeployed in the strength and time required to have an impact on the Bagration offensive.

The inability to redeploy units because of fuel shortages – which explains why the Courland group was not evacuated by sea – also lay behind Hitler’s “fortress town” tactic in which encircled German units would attempt to tie down the Soviet units that had surrounded them.  The trouble was that by this stage of the war, the Red Army was surrounding whole armies across entire regions.  An encircled corps or division could consider itself lucky to survive more than a few days in an encirclement battle on the Eastern Front in 1944.  Indeed, like a cat toying with a cornered mouse, during the Bagration offensive the Red Army perfected the tactic of deliberately leaving a corridor through which defenders could be tempted to attempt an escape, in order to encircle them on open ground; thus avoiding costly urban fighting.

As the Western Allies also discovered at the end of their summer 1944 offensive, being oil-rich does not mean being invulnerable.  Just as the Anglo-American forces were halted along the German border in the autumn of 1944; so the main Soviet armies stalled on the east bank of the Vistula.  The difference, however, was that the Red Army had sufficient resources – and the ability to deploy them rapidly over land – in the autumn of 1944 to finally open the offensive in the south – driving the Germans out of Rumania and advancing toward Germany’s last oil deposits in Hungary.

Like the Anglo-American forces in the west, the main Soviet forces were to remain on the defensive along the Vistula until January 1945; after which – in response to the German Ardennes offensive in the west – the Red Army opened up its penultimate major assault, which took it to within 40 miles of Berlin (where it was to suffer more than a million casualties in the course of capturing the Nazi capital in May 1945).  And, contrary to popular western histories, the Ardennes operation was not the German army’s final offensive.  Even as the Red Army was beginning its march to surround and capture Berlin, what remained of the German Sixth Panzer Army was in Hungary attempting to drive the Red Army back from Lake Balaton toward Budapest.  The reason for this final – apparently insane – offensive?  To try (and fail) to recapture Germany’s last supplies of oil.

As you made it to the end…

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